Print This Post
September 27, 2011

George and the Sacred Mysteries of Faith

Read/Post Comments (2)

George (Yorgos) is a priest (papas) of the Greek Orthodox Church, but only his cassock reveals his professional standing in society. Everything else about him seems out of character. He sports a long pony tail and a neatly trimmed beard; he wears cowboy boots even during the liturgy. He is a cigarette-smoking, ouzo-drinking, girl-watching enigma! But when he sings the liturgy, his deep mellow bass voice obscures his man-of-the-world trappings in favor of his priestly image, and one can only see the dispenser-of-the-bread-of-life. When not performing the most sacred mystery of the faith, he manages his own small farm, tends to the needs of his own family, and visits the kafeneion (coffee shop). Except for his priestly garb he is not unlike other men very much at home in the world.

     What makes someone choose such a high profile role standing on the edge ostensibly between the profane and the sacred?

     I don’t really know, and I doubt any one does. But the question sets me to thinking about what motivates these high profile practitioners of the “religious arts.” Positive motivation (surely there is negative motivation—think Elmer Gantry!) must lie in the distinctive religious practice of each Christian group. Speaking broadly, there appear to be three primary motivations for entering upon the religious arts; these motivations lie at a level deeper than the usual cultic practices of Christian religious groups such as marrying, burying, indoctrinating neophytes, and other such similar activities.

     In the liturgical traditions (Roman Catholic and Orthodox) lies the obvious appeal of dispensing the primary sacred mystery of the faith—handling the actual body and blood of God (see John 6: 52-59); this heady responsibility sets the priest apart as the most holy point where the sacred and the profane coalesce in the modern world. Essentially, the appeal is the priestly function.

     “Protestant” groups feature the appeal for an individual to become God’s authoritative spokesman who proclaims God’s Word that leads to correcting the tragic human condition. The religious professional is viewed by self and congregation as God’s messenger through whom one hears the voice of God and hence they come to know the will of God. Essentially, the appeal is the prophetic function.

     A new form of Christianity is rapidly becoming a serious competitor to these two models of the faith—the ancient and the Reformation. Churches practicing this recent form of Christianity describe themselves as progressive in Christian faith. There is no central authority but Progressive churches seek a loose and unofficial association for collegial purposes. Such churches represent a reform movement among the traditional churches left over from the 16th century Reformation. They aim at reinterpreting the mythical and mystical categories in which the older forms of Christianity expressed themselves. Whereas the earlier forms focused on bringing the divine to expression in a secular world, Progressive churches view themselves primarily as Helpers of human beings—feeding the hungry, helping the poor, and such like. They practice an aggressive social activism aimed at justice in the social order seeking to improve the world for all God’s creatures. Essentially, the appeal is being a Helper of human beings. Oddly there was such a spiritual role in the Pauline churches of the first century. A Helper was a person set aside by God (1 Corinthians 12:28). The function of the Helper is not described but I suppose a Helper was one who gave rather than received.

     Do all these essentially different views of the role of the religious professional in the modern world have anything in common, except the designation “religious,” however broadly construed?

     That is a tough question, having many possible answers. The more I think about it, however, George’s cowboy boots may turn out to be more than what they seem—suggesting a metaphor for the entire field of religious professionals. The cowboy is an iconic figure of the Old West. As portrayed in American western films of the 40s, the cowboy was a resourceful solitary figure who rode into a tragic human situation with the “right stuff” for righting wrongs and restoring the breach in the common good. What’s not to admire about such a figure? Every kid in my generation wanted to be the cowboy who wore the white hat and pearl handled revolvers.

     The iconic cowboy, as I describe him above, is also not a too far-fetched description of Jesus of Nazareth as portrayed in the canonical gospels—“a solitary figure with the right stuff, enters a tragic human condition, heals the breach in the common good.” Well, OK; you will have to re-baptize the language religiously, but it is really not a bad fit.

     Hmmmm! No wonder I hear ringing in my ears Willie Nelson’s cautious warning: “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.” Think about it! Would you want your baby to end up as Jesus did?

Posted from Karpathos September 2011

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 10:23am

Hi, Charlie,

There is another option that seems to appeal to many young people – the “emerging church” movement. These churches seem to be branches of mainline Protestant churches (Assemblies of God, Disciples of Christ, etc.) and they welcome a diversity of people (e.g., unmarried couples, LGBT, people with tattoos) as well as accept that some people have questions and doubts about the Christian faith.

From what I can tell, the common denominators of these emerging churches are: the use of “praise” music, and most of the participants are under thirty years of age. But I’ve only visited a couple of these, and looked at the websites of some others, so my information is limited.

Being somewhat over thirty, and not a fan of praise music, these churches don’t appeal to me, but their welcoming spirit is refreshing.

Regarding the reasons a person chooses to be a religious professional: I can only tell you my experience. Ever since I was six years old, I wanted to be a (Catholic) nun. All I know is that I had, and have, a deep desire in my heart to be devoted to God, whatever/whoever that may be. It’s really a feeling (not an intellectual conclusion), and it’s always with me. As far as being powerful or prophetic, no, that never occurred or appealed to me. Being thankful, helpful, peaceful – these seem to be the main motivations. I also had/have a desire to honor and flow with the images, music, and emotions from deep within me. I’m probably not explaining this very well, but it’s difficult to describe.

Whether these motivations stem from nature or nurture (probably both), I don’t know. And when I did spend time in the convent, I was unable to accept obedience – drove me crazy! But that’s my own rebelliousness, not the fault of the community or the church. Plus, I’ve always had doubts about doctrines, and these seem to be increasing the more I learn about religion.

Anyway, when I was little, I wore a cowboy hat AND Indian moccasins. I wanted to be both!

Thanks, Charlie, as always for this opportunity to share with you, Roger, and others.

Take care,
Posted by Jane Terry on 10/5/2011 at 8:11am

Thanks for sharing your experience, Jane. Anyone else out there who is willing to share their experience? (For mine see my chapter in When Faith Meets Reason.) On what you call “the emerging church”: I am unfamiliar with that term; I have always referred to this religious phenomenon as “a mega church.” From what little I know they all seem to use the “praise” music and emphasize emotional response by “experiencing God or Jesus” in a deeply emotional catharsis in the service. However I would still likely group even these churches, as you did, as a branch of mainline Protestant churches as far as the “clergy (both official and unofficial).

Posted by Charles Hedrick on 10/6/2011 at 8:40am

I remember reading John Shelby Spong's book "Why Christianity Must Change or Die" when it was released 12 years ago. I remembered then wondering where he saw the evidence of the death of the old magic and superstition based expressions of religion and where this rising tide of progressive faith was going to show up.

I had received a progressive flavor of religious education at Vanderbilt during the 1980's and was ordained into what was generally thought of as a liberal denomination (Disciples of Christ) but my denomination and the whole of main stream Christianity seemed to be lilting to the right. When I visit my older brother, a United Methodist pastor in Alabama, I find that in his mega-church they use Focus on the Family Sunday School literature and the sermons would have been acceptable in a 18th century camp revival. What passes for modern Christian music is full of more magic and superstition than the 19th century hymns in our hymnals. My former denomination now seems indistinguishable from Southern Baptists.

To my best knowledge, the church I serve is the only progressive Christian congregation within 500 miles of Springfield. The Council of Churches is happy to cash our checks when we donate to poverty programs but they will not let us join because we do not believe that Jesus was (is) God.

After 25 years of broad dissemination of Jesus Seminar materials and an entire generation of pastors educated in progressive theological and biblical perspectives, it still seems like the embodiment of a non-pious, social justice seeking, progressive faith is still only in tiny congregations huddled on the edge of the main stream of American religious life.

Roger L. Ray, D.Min.
Community Christian Church
Springfield, MO
Posted by Robert L. Ray on 9/27/2011 at 3:23pm